Best destination: Here’s why you should consider a horse-riding holiday in Denmark

A horse-riding holiday in Denmark is just the kind of break you need if you are looking for tranquillity. It should be on top of your bucket list for 2019.

horse riding Icelandic horses are known for their long, flowing manes

Most people get a thrill from the horse power of their vehicles, be it a four- or a two-wheeler. For me, the experience of riding a living, breathing steed rates notches above. With horse riding, the vehicle itself becomes the destination.

When you mount a horse, your mind goes down a rabbit-hole. One that takes you to a deep sense of contentment. It comes from connecting with the beautiful creature. To ride well you need to become one with the horse. Then it starts responding to your subtlest gesture. And the ride is perfect.

My horse-riding holiday in Denmark began well before I reached there. This journey of many thousand miles began with multiple steps: I had ridden in my childhood but that was decades before. Wanting to relive the exhilaration, I began to explore the net for horse-riding holidays. One day I discovered a luxury horse-riding trip in north-west Denmark. It included gourmet Danish cuisine, spa treatments and, most importantly, horse-riding day-trips through forests, moors and beaches. It sounded like the ideal combination of adventure and luxury. The catch was that you needed to be at least an ‘intermediate’ level rider to participate.

I signed up for the trip, reassuring the organisers that I would take riding lessons to get to the level required. I enrolled for classes at Jappaloupe in Talegaon (near Pune) and then at the Saddle Camp and Amateur Riders’ Club in Mumbai. I spent weeks preparing. Getting the right gear is important too, which I learned the hard way.

A week into my lessons, I picked up the requisite riding helmet, breeches and boots from Decathlon. But in the initial classes, before I acquired the knee-high boots, I rubbed my calves raw — as I was gripping the horse for dear life. This happens from the beginner’s fear of falling off and the effect is worse without the protective barrier of the boot. Like most activities in life, riding too is something you can do well only when you learn to relax.

 Horse riding The expanse of the North Sea beach is ideal to ride fast on

I supplemented my practical classes with numerous YouTube tutorials covering everything from correct posture to the right way to fall when you lose your balance — to reduce the risk of injury. Armed with this training and knowledge, I was off. My international flight brought me to Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen, a delightful city. I sojourned there — packing in concerts, castles and cafés — over a long weekend before taking a short domestic flight to Aalborg.

Jesper Finderup, who runs the Gourmet Spa Break, picked me up from the airport and drove me to his country villa about 45 minutes away in the village of Thorup Strand.  There we were greeted by his wife, Rikke, the gourmet chef who was the creator of the regional delicacies that would make this a vacation for the taste buds as well.

The house, with its rustic elegance, felt cosy and welcoming. It was surrounded by farmland, fields and forests. The North Sea was close by too. Ironically, the first thing I rode on reaching Thorup Strand was not a horse but my hosts’ electric bicycle. Jesper suggested that I ride it to the beach. I did and was rewarded with my first view of the placid vastness of the North Sea. I gazed at it from a pebbly beach on which were berthed wooden boats of varied sizes, all painted uniformly white and blue. Here, it gets cold (by Indian standards) even at the height of summer—while this June day had been balmy, the breeze that blew over my face was chilly.

By the time I got back to the house, most of the other guests had arrived. They were all from Denmark or Norway and had driven in. The Norwegians had crossed over by ferry with their cars. I had travelled the farthest to get here.

 Horse riding A newborn foal, less than an hour old, with its parents

The luxury part of the trip began with champagne, wine and mouth-watering morsels prepared by Rikke. We sat out on the patio drinking, snacking, chatting and laughing — Jesper’s sense of humour was infectious. For dinner, we moved indoors. It was a candle-lit affair, with delicious food, beautifully presented. The seafood was fresh from the North Sea, just minutes away. The desserts Rikke prepared looked so divine, they could melt the resolve of the most strong-willed dieter. All this was accompanied by fine French wines. Afterwards, there were liqueurs. Lubricated thus, the party continued well past normal bedtime.

The next morning began with a breakfast buffet: eggs, bacon, salmon, cheese, freshly-brewed coffee and freshly-squeezed orange juice helped neutralise the effects of the previous night’s revelry. Then we went to the stable to meet our horses. Mine was named Fagur—it meant ‘picture’. And he was truly a picture-perfect Icelandic horse—with a seal brown coat and a thick, long mane.

Icelandic horses are the size of ponies. Their strength and stamina are in inverse proportion to their height. They came to Scandinavia with the Vikings and, over hundreds of years of natural selection, adapted to the harsh climate of the region. Apart from the walk, trot, canter and gallop — the standard gaits of equines—Icelandic horses developed two more: the flying pace and the tölt. The flying pace is so fast it is rarely used except in racing. The tölt, though, is an everyday riding gait. Its speed is between the trot and the canter. A really comfortable rhythm, the back of the horse does not bounce up and down with the tölt as it does with other gaits. The smoothness makes it a pleasure to ride.

 Horse riding One of the riders taking a break with her horse

My horse-riding experience in India had been restricted to short sessions in the safety of riding arenas. In Denmark, we would be hacking out. No, this is not some strange violent ritual. Hacking out is the equestrian term for riding out in nature. We would be riding for hours through forests, moors and beaches. It would be my moment of truth. I would find out whether I was well-prepared or not. As it turned out, I was. The more we rode, the more I relaxed, and the more pleasure I derived from it. Fagur was, like me, a speed-freak. He went into a tölt or canter with the slightest encouragement. When we reached the endless North Sea beach, he galloped so hard, I felt transported to another zone.

Being with horses releases oxytocin in the brain—decreasing blood pressure, slowing breathing and cocooning you in a feeling of happiness. That is why I think of it as meditation in motion. The outside world becomes a blur of speed lines, your inner world goes into slow motion. It is counterintuitive. It is wonderful.

 Horse riding The second horse with Jesper Finderup, our host, is in training

We worked up an appetite riding on ancient pirate trails, past old Nazi bunkers, through tiny picturesque villages. Then we met Rikke in a forest clearing. She had prepared a delectable picnic lunch and driven it over while we were out riding with Jesper. We were treated to a pie that looked like a patchwork quilt of ham, salmon, cheese and other goodies—a traditional Danish dish. Afterwards, we dozed on real quilts before commencing the ride back home.

Once back, we started on our sundowners. The sun sets very late in the Scandinavian summer, so what choice did we have but to dutifully refill our glasses time and again until darkness descended hours later.

We paused somewhere in between and had our dinner—in broad daylight. Then there was more drink and laughter and more drink. It was 'hygge' Nordic luxury and the host was bent on giving us a taste of the good life while enjoying it along with us. The evening ended with dessert on the beach, with the view of a spectacular late-hour sunset.

The next morning, as we rode past a paddock, we discovered a new-born foal outside its fence. This little creature, who was not even an hour old, had somehow slipped out under the barrier and was now separated from its parents. It walked unsteadily on the trail bordering the paddock. Its anxious mother and father tried to stay as close as possible from the inside of the fence. Jesper managed to pick up the foal and return it to its parents. The baby horse would now be safe.

 Horse riding A pool of crystal-clear water on the cusp of the moors and the beach

On the last day, my skills were unexpectedly put to the test. As we rounded a bend on a forest trail at fast clip, Fagur saw something that made him nervous—it was probably a small animal scurrying past. Fagur seemed to leap up, crouch down (the way dogs sometimes do when scared) and abruptly turn right (reversing our leftward trajectory) all at once. As I had been leaning left, the way one would do when taking a fast left turn on a motor bike, this sudden rightward swerve made me lose my balance. I tried to hold on, but quickly realised that I would not succeed in staying in the saddle.

My feet instinctively came out of the stirrups. This was a blessing. (If you get your feet stuck in the stirrups when you fall, the horse can drag you along.) I managed to land feet-first, though I immediately toppled over from the momentum. I put out my hand to break the fall—something the tutorials had warned against. Luckily, my feet had already absorbed most of the impact on hitting the ground, otherwise I might have broken my arm. As it turned out, I got away with my mistake. In fact, I just got up, dusted myself off, walked to where Fagur had halted, got back in the saddle and continued riding like nothing had happened.

Jesper’s horses are good-natured and well-trained, so the chance of a fall is rare. But horses are highly-strung creatures, so unpredictability is something you must factor in if you are a rider. It is, ultimately, an adventure sport. The essential accessory is preparation, preparation, preparation—which, aptly, sounds like the rhythm beaten out by the galloping hooves of a horse.

 Horse riding Riding towards Bulbjerg, the only bird cliff on the Danish mainland

That evening, a masseuse came to the villa and gave each of the guests a complimentary massage. This felt amazing after hours on horseback. It was possible to avail of pedicures and other treatments too, but I was content with just the one massage. I preferred to devote my time to the jollity of the party than the tranquillity of the spa.

In any case, a unique sort of tranquillity that no spa can match is what one experiences on horseback: you move fast but everything slows down. You leave all your cares behind as you gallop away. With cool wind and warm sunshine on your face, you find your bliss.

Back in Mumbai, one of the practices I follow every day to centre myself requires me to conjure up the mental image of my happy place. For me, it is on horseback in that little piece of heaven by the North Sea.

Before you go

Horse riding Jesper welcomes us with his Viking sword as wife, Rikke, looks on

To go for this horse-riding trip, it is essential that you be able to walk, trot and canter. If you already know how to ride, then you can book the trip. Otherwise, take classes first. Sign up for the trip only when you are confident of your skills. This could take weeks. Or months. There are riding schools in Mumbai, Bengaluru, Delhi, Kolkata, Pune, Ahmedabad and other places in India. Use Google to find one near you.

Be sure to carry knee-high riding boots, breeches and a riding helmet. You can get these at Decathlon, both in the physical store and online. Amazon is also an option.

The riding in Thorup Strand starts in spring. It would be a good idea to go during summer though. Even then, it can get chilly. Carry warm clothing you can wear in layers and adjust according to fluctuating temperatures.

You can get sunburnt while riding despite the cool weather. Wear full-sleeves and use sunscreen. Check the dates for which riding trips are available before planning.

How to get there

 Horse riding A picturesque seaside village

To book the horse-riding trip in Thorup Strand, get in touch with the organiser, Jesper Finderup, directly at www.luksusrideferie.dk. (Don’t be thrown if you don’t find the name ‘Thorup Strand’ on the website. They use the names of the surrounding areas.) You can also book it through Unicorn Trails, a UK-based travel agent who specialises in horse-riding holidays around the world.

How to reach: The best way to reach Thorup Strand from India is to take an international flight to Copenhagen. Depending on the airline, you may first land in another European city and connect to a flight to Copenhagen—SAS has many such flights. You could also spend a few days in this city. There is a lot to see and do in and around the Danish capital.

A short train ride away is Elsinore, the home of Prince Hamlet. Actors enact scenes from Shakespeare’s play in the castle.

From Copenhagen, there are many domestic flights to Aalborg through the day. You could also take a train or bus to Aalborg. You would be picked up from there. Yet another option is to hire a car and drive directly to Thorup Strand.

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